Horsekeeping On Small Acreage
When it comes to small horse pastures, pasturettes, or ranchettes, less equals more. More stress on pasture grasses, more likelihood of overgrazing, more pressure on fencing, more routine maintenance. But with proper management, pasturettes can be healthy and productive acres.
A healthy pasture begins with realistic expectations. "Many new horse owners believe that because the pasture is green, it's going to provide adequate nutrition for the horse. That might or might not be true, depending on the condition of the pasture," says Jerry Black, DVM, owner of Pioneer Equine Hospital (an equine referral practice) and vice president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Residing on an 80-acre ranch in Oakdale, Calif., Black is familiar with the management practices of smaller acreage; his own ranch is divided into many small pastures to accommodate a large breeding operation, and the region in general consists of many ranchettes.
Depending on climatic and geographic conditions, stocking rate, management practices, and hardiness of the forage, pasturettes vary in what they can offer a horse. Some function best as a limited daily turn-out/exercise area in which some grazing supplements the horse's daily ration. The horse spends most of its day in a barn, holding corral, or paddock. Properly managed small pastures in optimal regions can provide significant, nutritious forage. Explains Ann Swinker, PhD (physiology), state cooperative extension specialist, Colorado State University, "On our 40-acre ranch, we have a five-acre pasture that produces so much grass that during the growing season, we have to turn a few cattle out on it for a week or two to graze it down. Some folks here in Colorado (where it is semi-arid) irrigate, fertilize, and rotate their pastures and get a phenomenal amount of production off those pastures. Other folks with the same kind of property, mismanaged, have pastures that are eaten down to nothing. It all depends on how much effort you can put into it."
Good management begins with knowledge. You should know the type of soil you have, measure the nutrient content of your soil via annual soil analysis, realize what forages are best suited for your individual situation, and determine the carrying capacity for your acreage. One resource you can use in managing pastures is the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), formerly the Soil Conservation Service, which has an office in every county in the United States. You also can get information and soil analyses from your local county extension service.
Beyond that, good management involves paying attention to the health of your grass, meeting the nutrient needs of your grass, and keeping the pasture clean and fencing in good repair.
A Little TLC
"You have to take care of your pastures almost as much as your animals," says Swinker. "You have to groom them, fertilize them, harrow them, and clip them." You also need to make sure your pasture is neither over- nor under-grazed. "Overgrazing is the number one problem in small pasture management," she reports.
"Even the best of pastures are only going to accommodate, at best, a couple of horses per acre and maintain themselves well," says Black. "The average horse consumes 20 to 25 pounds of roughage a day, and pastures often cannot sustain that in terms of growth."
It's pretty easy to tell if a pasture is in danger of being overgrazed by the sparse height of the grass; optimal height depends on the type of grass. "Generally, you graze off half and leave half during the growth in dryland pasture," says Swinker. "You can graze more with irrigated pastures."
Adds Black, "Look at the height of your grasses. If they're grazed down to the nubbins, they are overgrazed."
Continuous pasturing can lead to overgrazing, so if you cannot rotate your pastures, it might be necessary to limit the time horses spend on pasture and to provide horses with roughage and grain in addition to forage. Either let your horses graze for only a few hours each day, or turn them out onto the pasture for a day or two, then rotate them off into another pasture or paddock or back into their stalls.
"The amount of time the horse is turned out on pasture must be gradually introduced, then kept the same from day to day to prevent founder or other problems," says Swinker. "You have to figure out a way to bring the horses back into the confined area. Horses can be conditioned or learn that there are certain times they can go out and certain times they stay in to eat. They might object at first to leaving the grazing, but they will learn to live within your management system."
Adds Maureen A. Fagan, BA (Animal Science), farm manager at Ohio State University, "We have a large number of horses on small acreage. All year long, roughage and grain are given in addition to pasture. Weather and bugs permitting, the horses get turned out daily, anywhere from two hours to 10 hours. In our situation, turn-out has more of a social and mental value than a nutritional value."
Surprisingly, undergrazing sometimes can be a problem on small pastures, particularly if stocking density is low. "Horses are selective grazers," explains Swinker. "They don't eat near the areas where they defecate or urinate. You may see areas of overgrazing, and other areas where the grass is too high and too mature, and they won't eat it."
Mature, overgrazed pastures lose quality and open up the area for weed invasion. In areas where grass starts to get too tall, remove or harrow the manure and mow the grass down to about four to six inches in height.
"The smaller the pastures, the more livestock on them, the greater the likelihood of having areas where the grasses are stressed and the weeds come up," says Black. "You've really got to control the weeds so they don't have a chance to seed out and take control of the pastures.
One of the best ways to control weeds is mowing; pasture mowing still leaves four to six inches of grass. It's not like grooming a lawn. Mow on an as-need basis.
If the grass already is short, hand-weeding or spraying the weeds might be necessary. "Spray with an herbicide such as Round-Up, which is safe around livestock," Black suggests. "However, Round-Up will kill grasses, too, so you have to be very careful with it."
Select a product that is safe to use in grazing pastures, carefully follow label directions, and following treatment keep animals off the pasture per label recommendations.
It's very important to provide adequate nutrients for grasses so they continue to grow, states Black. "You've got to fertilize those pastures once or twice a year, and will probably have to take the horses off of the pasture when you do that."
Fertilization can be done via a commercial fertilizer or by spreading composted manure. With a commercial product, either talk to your local county cooperative extension agent or a farm supply store to find the best type of product for the grasses you have based on your soil analysis.
"Manure has good fertilizing value and can be utilized, particularly if you have pasture rotation and compost activity that kills the parasite eggs," Swinker says. "You must compost the manure and let it heat up to kill parasite eggs. Beyond that, the only parasite I'd really worry about is ascarids, which are the hardest parasite eggs to kill and which can last in the soil up to nine years. If you had an infestation of ascarids, use the manure on fields or hay crops where animals aren't actively out grazing."
However, Black cautions on the use of composted manure in small pastures because of the possibility of spreading internal parasites. "One has to be very careful, depending on the parasite problem in your area." He suggests discussing this problem with your veterinarian.
Regardless of whether manure is composted or not, manure clean-up is important for parasite control and for the health of the grass, as high concentrations or manure can burn the grass.
"If the pastures are small enough, clean the pastures every week or two for good parasite control," says Black. "If the pastures are large enough that cleaning is not an option, use a drag harrow to break up the manure so that it isn't in a thick pile. Harrowing needs to be done at least on a monthly basis."
Unless you're maintaining a dry-land pasture, grass needs regular water; about every 10 days or so. Irrigation is the solution where dry seasons and drought are the problem.
Besides healthy forage, the pasture also needs to provide safe confinement. In small pastures, a higher stocking density can lead to more contact with fencing. Ditto for neighboring pasturettes where horses "visit" over fences.
Black finds pipe and/or non-climbing fencing works well for small acreage. He notes that wood and PVC fencing are safe, but wood is higher maintenance and has chew-appeal. With PVC, one must take care to purchase the stronger PVC pasture fencing rather than flimsier, decorative, home-and-garden type PVC fencing.
Avoid barbed wire and high-tension, small-diameter cable fencing.
"We have seen injuries with that (high-tension) wire that are more serious than barbed wire. It's much stronger than barbed wire and is not very forgiving," Black warns. "If a horse kicks through the close strands of cable, it may not be able to get its leg out easily and can sustain very serious, sawing-type injuries."
Swinker recommends checking your fencing about once a week. Look for protruding hardware and loose, damaged, or downed boards or rails.
Prevention vs. Restoration
It's far easier and cheaper to maintain a pasturette than to restore one. "It costs about $600 and up per acre to renovate a pasture, and you have to keep the animals off the pasture while you're renovating the site," says Swinker. "In the East, if you badly overgraze your pasture, it can take a couple of years to renovate the pasture and bring it back. But in the semi-arid climates and low-rainfall areas that we have in the West, once some of the native grasses are gone, they're gone. It can take 10 to 20 years to bring back a pasture in these areas."
To preserve your small pasture, give it the care it needs, and don't have unrealistic expectations as to what it can provide. "Don't look at your small acreage as a feed source," advises Swinker. "Keep your pasture grasses really healthy, feed the horse what it needs, and use your pasture as a turnout for mental adjustments."
Maureen A. Fagan, BA (Animal Science), farm manager at Ohio State University and the owner of her own small horse farm, has the following advice for other owners of pasturettes.
"In my experience, smaller acreage is not enough to meet the horse's nutritional needs. How much supplemental forage and grain is needed willl depend on the age, health, and use of the horse. Older or growing animals or an animal with a heavy workload almost always needs to be supplemented.
She says that large pastures that can support a lot of the animals' needs will have greatly decreased nutritional support during some parts of the year. That means supplementing horses with roughage and grain. (Salt and water need to be free-choice.)
"For routine maintenance of the smaller pasture, weekly fence checking, monthly mowing, and seasonal fertilization are all important. Parasites need to be controlled by pasture dragging and manure removal. Soil should be firm. The pasture needs to be dry."
About the Author
Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.